Saturday, March 15, 2014

On Mexico's Mayan Riviera: Tulum and Cancun

Cindy and Patrick at Tulum in 2000

When Cindy, Patrick and I visited the Mayan ruins of Tulum 14 years ago, we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

Industrialized tourism was just beginning on the so-called Mayan Riviera on the east coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

We could climb the pyramids and walk anywhere around the site.

Today it's a different story. Busloads of tourists pour in from Cancun, about 90 minutes north. You have to park about a half-mile away from the entrance now. The ruins are roped off. More of the buildings of this ancient ceremonial city have been restored and excavated.

Today Tulum is an international tourist destination. We heard visitors speaking French, German and Italian, among other languages.

On the beach at Tulum

It's a good thing they're protecting it. Tulum is the only Mayan ceremonial city built on the ocean, and its setting makes the ruins spectacular.

The crowds would certainly ruin the ruins if they weren't channeled through the site.

We have visited dozens of archeological sites in Mexico and they always impress us. Part of the reason is their mystery.

It wasn't until the 1980s that scholars made a number of breakthroughs that allowed them to fully decipher the Mayan writing carved into stone buildings and monuments.

Part of the problem was that the Spaniards had burned nearly all the manuscripts of the written language. Now we know a lot about Mayan leaders and how important Tulum was as a trading center for Central America.

Cancun for a conference and R&R

We look like we were working hard, right?
No one believes you when you say how hard you worked when you go to a place like Cancun for an academic conference. But it's true. I spent two days in a conference hall and barely saw the beach. Fortunately, we had two free days to enjoy afterwards.

I gave a lecture on producing journalism for mobile devices and then a workshop on how to launch independent digital media for an audience of professional journalists and college students. It was billed as the International Conference of Digital Journalism and Social Media, but all in Spanish, of course.

One of the best parts of this kind of conference is you get to meet some very interesting people, like Jean-Francois Fogel, a French journalist who works as a consultant in digital media; Chumel Torres, a Mexican video-blogger (bottom center in the photo above) who has a hugely popular YouTube channel in the style of "The Colbert Report" or "The Daily Show"; and Dario D'Atri, who runs digital media and strategy for Argentina's Clarin group (he's just above and to the left of Chumel).

On the Isla de las Mujeres, shark bait

The conference's sponsor, who publishes a magazine of investigative journalism, hosted us on a boat trip out to the Isla de las Mujeres. Cindy and I rented bikes and rode all the way around the small island. The west side is mostly tourist hotels, but on the east side, you see private homes, cliffs and ocean.

A friend of the captain of our boat keeps a shark in a pen at the dock and invited us in to come into the water and "pet" it. At first I was reluctant. It looked to be about 6 feet long, and you have to respect wild animals. But then I could see from its mouth and its long tail that it was a nurse shark. They are harmless to humans. I went in with Dario, and Cindy snapped some pictures and video (30 seconds, above).

Cindy was not frightened by this giant iguana.
 We had dinner on the island, a local fish cooked Mayan style over a wood fire and seasoned with local spices. Rich and tasty.

A number of local restaurants feature traditional Mayan foods and preparation techniques. The New York Times just published a piece about an American who has a restaurant in Tulum and uses local ingredients to create a kind of fusion of ancient and modern.

The Mayan language has survived on the Yucatan, particularly in the central and southern areas away from the tourist centers. When you fly over the peninsula, you see vast areas of green jungle occasionally punctuated by a resort plunked down in the middle.

The Yucatan in an earthly paradise that tourists love to death. The tourism produces lots of jobs for people who otherwise wouldn't be able to find work. And all the tourism development eats away at this side of paradise.


Monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán
Getting acclimated to Mexico City
Balloon launch over the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán
Guanajuato: another magical place in Mexico
Coaxtla and Xochitécatl: stunning murals and pyramids
Zacatecas: Silver mines and the mystery of the Quemada
Tenochtitlán and Xochimilco: Mexico City before the Conquest

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